By Rebecca Rennie

The NFL Draft talent to be found at small schools from the FCS and beyond is strong every year, and 2022 is no different. This presents my Top 75 small school prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft. The project was challenging to put together this year, with time constraints and some life issues outside of football almost derailing any chance of completing this season’s big board. Thankfully, it was possible to pull this together in time for the event. It’s almost certain that there are plenty of names not included here that absolutely should be. Unfortunately, it was not possible to get to everyone’s film, so apologies if any personal favorites are missing!

Though expecting this to be more brief this year, ultimately we have around 23,000 words of content in this article over four pages. The Top 30 graded prospects have been written up in detail, 10 per page, with one bonus write up on an additional prospect, given he is a well known prospect and QB, but was not graded as highly here. The fourth page contains the full Top 75 big board as a list.

For the Top 30, a number grade has been included out of 100 that I have been using for a number of years. It is not formed as a sum of various parts for various traits, more so relating to a projected role for the NFL as starters, backups, developmental prospects and so on. They can be roughly correlated to a general round of the draft which is also given for some context.

There is a lot of content within this project and would be surprised if many intend to read this start to finish. However, whether used pre-draft or after your team has picked up one or more of these players during or after the draft, I hope this provides some useful information or reference.


11. Isaiah Weston, Wide Receiver, Northern Iowa. Grade: 57 (5th Round)

Photo Credit: UNI Athletics

Height: 6’4”. Weight: 211 lbs. Arm: 32” 1/2. Hands: 9” 3/4.

Pros: Any list of winners from the Scouting Combine deserved to include Weston among those being recognized. The blend of athleticism and explosiveness at his size, length and power creates one of the better physical profiles among receivers in this draft class. One of the lesser-known invites to the Combine, in part due to a college career hindered by injuries, he left Indy with his name more widely known among draft fans.

An impressive 4.42 dash (1.49 split) was bettered by the explosive testing. Weston’s jumps of 40” in the vertical and 11”3’ in the broad placed him second only to Alec Pierce in the former and tied-second behind only fellow small schooler Christian Watson in the latter. Twenty reps on the bench were a reflective testament to the strength and physicality he shows in his on-field execution. That speed at his bigger frame translates to big plays in game action. After averaging nearly 22 yards a catch in limited action in the shortened Spring season, Weston exploded for close to 24 yards per reception in the fall of 2021. He added 5 touchdowns to his 883 yards on 37 catches.

The numbers could have been even better, with some missed opportunities throughout the season. Though a talented QB with a big arm, Theo Day had a number of inaccurate misses when targeting Weston. There are frequent examples of Weston torching DBs early, gaining separation and running free behind the secondary, but with an off-target throw. A big performance against North Dakota State could have been even more eye-popping but for a few missed opportunities in the early stages of that contest.

Closer viewing of the game film shows good build up speed that echoes the testing. The Panthers receiver routinely puts defensive backs in a quandary with how to combat the threat over the top due to his speed, against the need to match the physicality provided by his size and strength. Weston’s ability to win in multiple ways allows him to be impactful to all levels of the field. Though he can more consistently sell his routes, there are flashes of Weston twisting a corner with some slick footwork before utilizing his burst to pull away.

What really stands out, and despite the occasional concentration drop, is the outstanding overall ball tracking skills and finishing at the catch point. The UNI playmaker finds the ball downfield with positioning, timing and body control. He adjusts instinctively as the ball arrives and secures difficult catches outside of his frame and working to the ground.

Playing with an alpha demeanor at the catch point, he routinely uses his size effectively as he high points. Notable in both his route running and at the catch point, Weston is very difficult to disrupt off his route paths, his position and his catch completion through aggressive tight coverage. There is good use of hands to deflect contact and the physical impression is completed with solid effort as a blocker.

Cons: Weston had the potential to enter the pre-draft process as a higher profile prospect than he was, even prior to testing. However, one of the primary concerns with the toolsy receiver will be his injury history. Weston missed the 2018 season due to a knee injury. Beyond that, he has regularly carried a knock or niggling injury that has limited him for time periods, including his final season. Being banged up often, that may only continue at the NFL level among more physical competition.

There is a certain rawness to Weston’s overall game and the technical execution. The route execution could use more depth precision. There’s potential to better utilize his burst through foot cadence and varied pacing and tempo. There’s a tendency to show a little wasted motion and extra steps as he breaks down at the top of routes and in his changes of direction. While mentioning some nice moves above, he can be more consistent in disguising his intentions, telegraphing his next moves on occasion.

Wrapping Up: A multi-sport athlete in high school, Weston competed in football, basketball and track. That athleticism has carried over to his current physical profile. Weston has technical improvements to make but all the tools wanted to work with and develop. His measurables and testing reflects the high ceiling indicated by his big-play ability on the field. If he can stay free of injury, there is a lot to like about the long-term future. Weston should hear his name before the end of the draft. Personally, the opinion is that the talented FCS pass catcher is worthy of going earlier on Day 3 than many are projecting.

12. Eric Johnson, Defensive Line, Missouri State. Grade: 54 (5th Round)

Photo Credit: Missouri State University Athletics

Height: 6’4”. Weight: 299 lbs. Arm: 34” 1/4. Hands: 10” 1/8.

Pros: With over 20 small school prospects attending the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, there were a handful of notable omissions. Arguably, the most significant absentee was Missouri State’s Eric Johnson. His ascending profile may have come too late for an invitation to be extended. After impressing at the NFLPA Bowl, Johnson was brought in as a late addition to the Senior Bowl. He opened some eyes in Mobile, looking the part alongside the top-level talent in attendance. Several highlight reps in 1-on-1s stood out during practices. Those followed his NFLPA Bowl highlights that included a sack in the week-ending game.

Whether during Senior Bowl drills or his live game reps, Johnson shows off impressively athleticism and agile moves for his 300 lb frame. He can offer legitimate inside-outside versatility across the D-line. His film includes reps on the interior and edge, the left and right sides, in 3- and 4-man fronts, including over the nose. The varied impact extends to special teams, including making three kick blocks in his final season. Supplementing his ability to move around the formation is his unexpected lateral agility and quickness, along with elite percentile length. Johnson’s 34.25” arm length is part of overall well-rounded physical traits. The Bears lineman has size, bulk, length, power and quickness to his game.

Johnson put together his most productive year over his final 2021 season. That included 43 tackles, 6.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Granted, those numbers don’t leap off the page, especially given the lower competition level. Unsurprisingly, a factor in that is Johnson drawing near-constant double team assignments as recognition of the threat he offers. He also flashes examples of effectively driving gaps and splitting double teams. He’s often able to get relatively skinny or to strong-arm and bully his way into forcing a direct path to the backfield. Many plays that don’t result in a statistical output still feature disruption to the pocket integrity.

A frequently successful usage sees Johnson begin in the interior, before stunting laterally and outside to work the edge. The agility followed by powerful engagement will catch tackles off balance, allowing him to position for plays on the QB or running back working to the sidelines. As part of both his rushes and run defense, he’ll use some aggressive chops and swipes as he attempts to disengage. A nimble spin move is occasionally released from his repertoire. Though not noted much on regular season film, the Missouri State defender demonstrated use of a swim move during the NFLPA Bowl. When the pad level is good, Johnson can hold up at the point of attack and plug gaps, or as part of driving bull rushes.

In addition to his Senior Bowl showings, Johnson had the opportunity against higher level competition in the 2021 season opener against Oklahoma State. While not a constant dominant force, he put together some good reps that emphasized his applicable strength at the point of attack. One pass rush snap outside was only negated by an offensive lineman hold that went unfairly uncalled. At nearly 300 lbs, Johnson burst his way to a nice 4.89 dash at his pro day.

Cons: A sixth-year senior, Johnson is an older prospect who will turn 24 in the summer prior to his rookie season. Add in the fact that he had his best season at an older and more developed age, this added to his ability to overpower younger and at times less physically mature opponents. Even so, he wasn’t consistently dominant or blowing up the stat sheet. Teams who take note of breakout age might factor that into his grading. Regarding the statistical output though, we will again refer to the caveats listed in the pros section.

Though mentioning a few tools in the arsenal, overall, the Bears lineman doesn’t break out the most complex combination of rush moves, combination plans, counters and setups. The power and length combination can be highly effective. However, he can also be inconsistent with his pad level and balance that can reduce the impact at the point of attack. His form can become too upright that can negate leverage. A proportion of single-block stalemates can resultingly occur.

Wrapping Up: Missouri State’s Eric Johnson has physical tools and traits to hold up at the pro level. His combination of size, power, length and agility provide a foundational skill set to work with. His movement abilities and usage in college suggests versatility along the line and in provision of depth and rotation. His performances at both the NFLPA Bowl and Senior Bowl demonstrated that he can hold his own among more widely known prospects from bigger programs. Though not a Combine invite, Johnson has a good chance of being a mid-to-late round selection on Day 3 of the draft.

13. Cordell Volson, Interior Offensive Line, North Dakota State. Grade: 51 (5th-6th Round)

Photo Credit: Tim Sanger

Height: 6’6”. Weight: 315 lbs. Arm: 33” 7/8.

Pros: A highly experienced starter, Volson has seen significant success during his run with the Bison. He’ll be looking to bring some of that winning mentality to the pros. A potential prospect for the previous draft, the NDSU lineman chose to return for one final year. While a sixth year means entering the NFL older than most prospects, he certainly maximized his extra season. Volson was a standout performer during the playoffs as he contributed toward another National Title win for the Bison.

From an evaluation perspective, he arguably made strides during 2021 also. Though not a top-level athlete at the position, he appears to have improved his footwork and overall movement into a smoother operation overall, relative to this time last year. In general, the coordination and execution are further appreciated with the more film watched. Speaking to his experience, Volson has seen time at both left and right tackle for North Dakota State. The playoff run included some time at guard, in addition to playing inside during Shrine Bowl week.

Playing on the interior looks to be his best fit for the pros, with his movement and agility a limiting factor. However, certain fits might allow for consideration to remain at right tackle. Volson has a big frame and broad build. His arms measure in at close to 34” that would aid his execution on the edge. When able to deliver an early punch, he should prove challenging to work around. On the inside, Volson’s power will be an asset.

Two things in particular stand out in Volson’s play. Firstly, the Bison lineman’s experience and football IQ are evident in the snap-to-snap consistency. His execution of the offensive scheme with timing and positioning, particularly in his run blocking, is admirable. That will translate well to pulling from guard, should he line up inside. Second, is his unrelenting aggressiveness. Volson is one of the toughest blockers from the FCS level in recent years. He thrives on dominating physically, challenging at the point of attack, with a non-stop motor throughout. The Bison blocker can frequently overpower and control movement. Pancake blocks to the turf feel routine.

As physical as he is, there is no sacrifice of form or technique, maintaining his control while mauling overmatched defenders. There’s generally consistent extension as he seeks out first contact. The base is stout in pass protection when facing direct attacks to absorb bull rushes and halt progress.

Cons: The NDSU O-lineman releases well and is relatively smooth in his lower body technical execution, far from a lumbering presence on the field. The testing results from the Combine were far from that of a premier athlete, however. A 5.27 dash (1.80 split) was underwhelming but not damning by any stretch. He added 25” in the vertical, 8’8 in the broad, 4.93 in the shuttle and 8.31 in the three-cone drill. Unfortunately, not ideal metrics. That might contribute towards the possibility of Volson transitioning to the interior, rather than remain a tackle.

He rightly earns praise for his mauling play style, particularly in the run game. The generally good extension and timing with the hands were also referenced in the pros for Volson. That said, an area he can improve in technically is in placement of those hands, which can be off target more often than wanted. His eagerness to engage and take on blocks might be working slightly to his detriment in this case, with a better balance hopefully leading to more consistency. There are examples where the Bison lineman can struggle to redirect quickly to late-phase pressure and his recovery to reset his feet.

Wrapping Up: The more film watched of Volson, the greater the appreciation was of his coordination, control, discipline and execution. Athletic testing was a little more concerning than expected, yet his film dilutes that sufficiently with clean footwork and technical polish. Looking the part inside at guard during Shrine Bowl week certainly didn’t suggest a prospect who won’t hold up in the pros, quite the opposite, in fact. There feels as though there is a comfortable floor to Volson’s projection. There’s potential to offer depth at multiple spots on the line, along with the toughness, intelligence and strength to start in the league. Much like his play, Volson will make for a solid addition to his future roster.

14. Matt Waletzko, Offensive Tackle, North Dakota. Grade: 46 (6th Round)

Photo Credit: Matthew Smith

Height: 6’8”. Weight: 315 lbs. Arm: 36” 1/8. Hands: 10” 3/8.

Pros: Fighting Hawks tackle Matt Waletzko might be one of the more enticing developmental prospects at his position in this class. Just listing the measurables alone should indicate why that might be the case. From game film, the FCS O-lineman clearly had length and appealing movement beyond the tackle box. He ultimately ended up measuring in even bigger than listed in addition to testing impressively.

Waletzko brings near-unrivalled length with over 36” vines for arms and 86” wingspan. The length is the preferable trait over the 6’8 height that also featured in his size listing. Between the Combine and the pro day, he put together good testing that reflected his well-rounded athleticism. To put up 28 reps on the bench with arms as long as his is impressive, even for those who might not put much stock into the bench testing numbers.

It’s one thing to have length, but is essential to use properly, ultimately the struggle for the likes of a Julién Davenport. Waletzko takes advantage of his wingspan through good extension and initial punch. Though not built with a frame as broad as some tackles, it was obvious on film the aggressive application. Far from a finesse blocker, Waletzko is a consistent initiator in the opening phases of most reps. Although against often overmatched D-linemen, Waletzko shows comfortable control of the action on single blocks.

Though coming from a lower level, the North Dakota tackle offers significant experience. Outside of a season-ending injury midway through 2019, Waletzko has been a starter for the majority of his four seasons in college. It shows in his impressive awareness and overall intelligent play. The UND tackle is rarely beaten on film thanks to his smart play and situational recognition. Few defensive ends were able to match him physically. Waletzko’s impressive power supplemented his length to control at the point of attack. His aggressive run blocking saw D-linemen consistently rocked back and moved to open rushing lanes.

Cons: Though generally controlling as a pass protector on film, a number of technical flaws are exposed when challenged. With the inevitability of being tested more frequently in the pros, those issues will be magnified if not improved. The footwork can be clumsy and inefficient. He can get flat-footed and can struggle to reset his feet when facing counters and changing direction. Footwork issues progress to balance issues when stressed. While Waletzko can be impactful as a run blocker, his balance can also see him on the turf prior to finishing blocks more often than ideal.

Waletzko is a solid athlete but appears on film as a little tight hipped with limited flexibility. His form can degrade on contact with a tendency to lunge into engagements and bend at the waist too much. The overall coordination between upper and lower body disappoints which contributes toward some of the footwork problems. The strength is excellent, yet Waletzko’s lean frame could potentially benefit from added bulk. With his naturally high pad level and questionable balance, working his shoulder can lead to some short paths to the quarterback.

Wrapping Up: Commonly suggested as a mid-round target as we close on the draft, the intrigue in his potential is justified. Few prospects can match his length with more power than his relatively lean stature suggests. Given the positional value at offensive tackle and the upside, Waletzko could go earlier than expected. That said, there could be significant work required before he is ready to start. The technical issues in the footwork, form and balance are concerning. Combined with somewhat stiff-hipped movement, there may be more struggles than were otherwise evident from the majority of his film. Personally, he grades more in the latter rounds of the draft more so than the earlier stages of Day 3.

15. Ja'Tyre Carter, Interior Offensive Line, Southern. Grade: 44 (6th Round)

Photo Credit: Travis Spradling / The Advocate

Height: 6’3”. Weight: 311 lbs. Arm: 33” 5/8.

Pros: In a loaded class of FCS offensive linemen, Carter could be one of the first selected from a diverse group. One of the earliest announced attendees for the East-West Shrine Event, Carter was also deservingly added to the Senior Bowl roster late on. The week in Mobile was a boost for Carter’s draft stock with some impressive performances in practice. Solid testing and workout at the Combine rounded out a profitable pre-draft process for the small school lineman.

A left tackle for the Jaguars, Carter projects best for a move to the interior O-line. That said, should he be pressed by need into providing cover at tackle, it likely would not be beyond him. With arms only a shade under 34”, quick feet and experience at the position, there is potential versatility on offer. In addition to stepping up against better competition at the All-Star events, Carter also played his best against his toughest opposition in the FCS. Against eventual Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land of Florida A&M, Carter shut the Rattler down early and forced Land to switch over to the right tackle to find any success.

The physical traits with Carter are evident early into watching film. In addition to being well built with a powerful build, his quickness stands out. While his Combine testing, including a 5.13 dash, didn’t match that of an elite athlete, he moves impressively in pads. Carter has desirable explosiveness releasing from his stance and foot quickness to keep pace and frame defenders. He can achieve angles difficult for some and pulls impressively from the left to lead block on runs to the right sideline.

The combination of his movement and power at the point of attack results in some devastating run blocking success, including on the second level. He has the strength to overpower, drive and create backward movement. With his projected move inside, his execution should lend itself well to pulling guard duties in the pros. Carter improved his testing numbers at Southern’s pro day. Jumps of 34.5” in the vertical and 9’3 in the broad were better representation of his on-field explosiveness. His 21 bench reps were representative on the impact consistently made at the point of attack.

Cons: While the size, strength and agility are positives, there are technical improvements required. For example, while foot speed is a plus, the footwork itself can be inefficient at times. Carter can be inconsistent setting his base and anchor that can lead to being knocked off balance occasionally. Speed-to-power can be effective against him when his footwork and base are not on point. Pad level and leverage vary snap-to-snap that will be more frequently punished at the pro level.

The hands can get a little erratic in their placement and in sustaining effective contact throughout reps. His over-eagerness to aggressively punch out of his stance can result in over-extending and lunging. That said, when his punch lands, he can control the action with ease. Carter gets his coordination and technique correct often enough and to great effect. Doing so more consistently will unlock the full potential, however. Despite that, it’s undeniable how rare he is beaten at the FCS level regardless.

Wrapping Up: A steady rise in his wider profile and apparent draft stock has been achieved through checking off boxes each step of the way through the pre-draft process. Carter has technical improvements to make in all aspects of his on-field operation. That said, he flashes effective translatable execution in each area often enough to provide optimism in the projection. There’s a toughness and grit to his play and mentality that compensated for flaws on film. He can develop into a starter with time, which ought to see an early-to-mid Day 3 investment made.

16. Dareke Young, Wide Receiver, Lenoir-Rhyne. Grade: 42 (6th Round)

Photo Credit: Lenoir-Rhyne Athletics

Height: 6’2”. Weight: 224 lbs. Arm: 32” 5/8. Hands: 10” 1/8.

Pros: There has rightly been recognition for the depth of draftable talent from the FCS in the 2022 class. The small school potential extends beyond that level though, with plenty prospects from Division 2 and beyond also. Fayetteville State corner Joshua Williams leads the way as a near-lock to be drafted. Outside of Williams, the next most likely to be selected during the seven rounds from a D2 school could be Lenoir-Rhyne’s Dareke Young.

The justifications for draft pick investment have been piling up since East-West Shrine week. That event proved a massive milestone. The pro-caliber burst and long speed were clearly apparent on film. For Young to offer those skills with his measurements provided at the All-Star event is enticing. The Bears receiver brings a muscular 6’2 frame carrying 224lbs and a catch radius aided by arms over 32.5” in length. The height/weight/speed prospect demonstrated the core strength to back up the size, through his 22 pro day reps.

The East-West Shrine stock-boosting week entailed more than just his weight-in. Young looked far from out of place among the top division talent in attendance. The practices saw the D2 prospect win frequently using his body and strength on certain reps, his explosion and deep speed on others. The ability to win in multiple ways and on multiple levels of the field indicates the potential upside. There’s improvement to be made as a route runner but his timing and foot cadence already stand out. His sells and burst out of his breaks catch DBs out, earning a step that he rarely gives back once established.

Adding to the versatile usage, Young has been a 5-year contributor on special teams units through college. He did so again as the primary punt returner for the game to close out Shrine Week. His speed has been put to use as a returner and on coverage duties. More than willing to do whatever is needed to help the team, expect Young to show up on ST units again as a pro. A large portion of Young’s college touches have been carriers out of the backfield as a runner. Those skills come into use again on shorter receptions as a threat in space after the catch.

Building on the East-West Shrine success, Young’s pro day has only added to the buzz around the Bears playmaker. At his build, Young blazed a 4.44 dash (1.54 split), jumped 37” in the vertical and an exceptional 11’3 in the broad jump. His 6.88 three-cone time and 4.19 shuttle are indicators of the sharp feet and agility shown on film and in practices. By all accounts, Young has worked hard to improve and to reach this point, with the right mentality and toughness desired. In his own words, Young carries a chip on his shoulder.

Cons: Young has looked spectacular with the opportunities he’s had. There is also a relatively smaller sample size than ideal. That especially applies as a small school prospect, where statistical domination can be a useful boost. Over five seasons, the most catches Young has totalled in a season has been just 25. There are caveats to that. His usage has included significant touches as a ball carrier that has added to his numbers. In 2018 he carried the ball 38 times (8.4 YPC), with 49 runs (6.8 YPC) in 2019. The offensive scheme and resulting passing game opportunities limited his chances at times also.

Factoring into the opportunities, Young has been limited in the film he’s been able to provide the past two seasons. While many small school prospects are tapering upward with their snap count and production, Young has only appeared in seven games over the last two years. The pandemic-shortened season and a PCL knee injury meant only two appearances in 2020. This year, the Bears standout was limited to five games. Earlier in his carrier, he was able to contribute just nine receptions over his first two seasons.

Wrapping Up: The latter stages of the draft are made for prospects like Dareke Young. If there were still such a thing as draft sleepers, Young may have fit the profile. Coming from a Division 2 school, with only a modest number of career touches over five seasons, and no Combine invite, it would not shock if he went undrafted. Yet equally, his outstanding week against better competition at the East-West Shrine bowl, his frame and athletic combination which matches up with some of the top receiver talent in this class, and explosive film, he is more than deserving of a Day 3 selection.

17. Jason Poe, Interior Offensive Line, Mercer. Grade: 40 (6th-7th Round)

Photo Credit: Mercer University Athletics

Height: 6’1”. Weight: 300 lbs. Arm: 32”.

Pros: Among the best methods for a small school prospect to garner attention is to show up against the best competition on the schedule. That particularly applies when those opportunities arise against Power Five talent. Only of the more widely heralded FCS prospects in this class did just that, with Chattanooga offensive lineman Cole Strange excelling against Kentucky early in the 2021 season. Mercer’s Jason Poe deserves similar props for his performance against Alabama this season, in which he matched many a Tide defender with his physicality and movement.

A testament to his skills for the next level, Poe held up strength-for-strength at the point of attack with SEC foes, created movement and looked close to as explosive a mover as anyone he shared the field with during the brief stints when the Bears offense were taking snaps. Granted, he unsurprisingly took some L’s during certain reps against Saban’s defense. Yet, he unquestionably demonstrated the worthy traits throughout in one of the more entertaining individual prospect films in this class. Working through additional Mercer film, Poe is obviously moving in a manner exceeding that of the majority taking the field.

Joining Mercer was in fact a step up in competition from his previous stop. Transferring in from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne, Poe has been under-rated for some time. Reportedly, part of the issue factoring into his under-recruitment related to best position fit and unwisely being overlooked as a result. With an unconventional build and the translatable nature of his skills elsewhere, he has been considered an offensive lineman for some, but a big-bodied full back for others.

Ultimately, the athletic offensive weapon’s versatility ought to only be considered a plus and to likely see him drafted. Poe can line up at guard and center on the O-line, having worked at his snapping. While not built with typical size and length at under 6’1, Poe’s 32” arms are sufficient for working on the interior. He can absolutely be utilized out of the backfield as a lead blocker with outstandingly explosive burst and short area movement. Either way, he will be a dynamic lead blocker as a pulling guard in addition to any FB usage.

Poe’s athletic testing at Georgia’s pro day did partially reflect that athletic ability for the position. His 4.89 dash was excellent, as was the 31.5” vertical. The 34 bench reps, even considering the shorter arm length, is impressive. It could be argued that his application and execution appear to exceed even those numbers. Poe maximizes his low center of gravity and broad frame with effective leverage and superb balance. He lands an impactful punch with generally good hand placement that when delivered correctly can prove effective in compensation to lesser length. As a pass protector, Poe tends to be at his best staying square, absorbing contact and anchoring down.

Cons: It has been highlighted where the Bears blocker wins and the positive aspects to his physical traits. There’s no doubt however, that his frame is unconventional and outside of certain standards that some will uphold. There are not many offensive linemen who measure in at under 6’1, while 32” arms are below average also. Some players are outliers though, and Mercer’s Jason Poe has high level compensating athletic traits.

Poe’s run blocking is wonderfully dynamic and destructive. Conversely, there can be improvements made to the pass protection. His balance and base are generally reliable, but some occasions when requiring to redirect or when worked by combination moves, his footwork can get choppy, he can lose coordination and fail to sustain the occasional block.

Wrapping Up: Poe is a unique player with a unique path to the pros. From a 250lb Junior College full back, he has bulked up and excelled as an All-American Division 2 offensive lineman. That led to a final collegiate stop and Mercer and thriving there also. The athletic lineman is wide and powerfully built with eye opening movement and explosion. It does not feel an exaggeration to refer to him as potentially one of the best pulling interior linemen prospects in the 2022 class.

18. James Houston, Linebacker/Edge, Jackson State. Grade: 37 (7th Round)

Photo Credit: Eric Shelton/Clarion Ledger

Height: 6’0”. Weight: 244 lbs. Arm: 34” 1/4.

Pros: Dominating on the stat sheet will aid in garnering attention at the lower levels. Few defenders did so more emphatically this season that Jackson State’s James Houston. A transfer from the Florida Gators, Houston was a game-wrecker in his sole season with the Tigers. His prolific numbers included 70 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks on the year. His big plays and turnover generation included an interception, 7 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. Both fumble recoveries came against high-powered offense Alabama A&M, taking one back to the house for a score.

Houston spent significant time for JSU lining up as a rusher off the edge. He doesn’t feature the most prototype build for such a role at a shade over 6’ tall. It’s obvious immediately on film however, that the Power Five transfer has ridiculous length for his frame. That proved the case in his pre-draft measurements with over 34” arms and 82” wingspan. With a full back frame and offensive lineman length, Houston has naturally good pad level. The stoutly built defender has impressive power, as further indicated by his 22 bench reps at his pro day. Utilizing his leverage, he gets under the pads and applies that good core strength to win at the point of attack.

Despite the unconventional build, Houston surprises opposing offensive linemen with his ability to create movement through his combination of power and length. Leaping off the film is the small school playmaker’s explosiveness off the snap. The instant acceleration and upfield burst are built upon with the ferocious fast hands that attack on first contact into the body or outside shoulder. Houston has traits to win early when fully exploiting his length. His lower body explosion was showcased with more standout pro day numbers with a 39” vertical and 10’5 broad jump.

The Florida transfer had a limited role and snap count for the Gators but did flash with some of his opportunities. A positive for his pro projection, Houston contributed in the SEC as a key special teams player. It says plenty that even as one of the stars at a lower level with the Tigers, Houston continued to play a role on special teams. He can add to his value in the NFL as a core special teams contributor.

Speaking of versatility, Houston shows more on film than only his work off the edge. The short area quickness, closing speed and sideline range aids in pursuit on the second level. He appears to play faster and more dynamically than his timed pro day speed fully suggested. Houston’s rare arm length has added value as a wrap-up tackler to finish against the run. A standout at the East-West Shrine event, Houston had the opportunity to play more off-ball linebacker during the week and proved active and impactful.

Cons: Standing out at Shrine week was encouraging, but Houston was not among the small school prospects invited to the Scouting Combine, despite his immense production. Hopefully, the traits indicated by his measurements and the superb pro day performance will still put him in contention for a draft selection. There are several strong candidates to hear their name called out-with the Combine invites among the small school class this year.

There may be just enough questions or uncertainties that scouts and decision makers may ask about Houston to cause him to be passed over during the draft. The unconventional frame might be queried. Where he best projects on defense may be an issue for some teams. He found his success off the edge but might be viewed primarily as an off-ball linebacker where he has less film. That he did not establish a more prominent role at Florida could also be brought up. There are plenty positive spins to put on all those factors, but at the same time, it would not surprise if some teams gave themselves reasons to look elsewhere.

Wrapping Up: Houston’s draft stock has ascended, in multiple phases. Relative to where he was entering the Summer, his explosive and productive final collegiate season drew deserved attention. The rise has furthered in these closing stages of the draft build-up. Highlight moments at both the NFLPA Bowl and Shrine Bowl events have added to the momentum. His ability to showcase himself as an off-ball linebacker in those settings added comfort to the projection options. The pro day measurables eased some size concerns by confirming length. Houston is explosive, high-motor, strong, and finishes. His high-impact play production is undeniable.

19. Tanner Conner, Wide Receiver, Idaho State. Grade: 37 (7th Round)

Photo Credit: Justin Prax / Idaho State University Athletics

Height: 6’3”. Weight: 226 lbs. Arm: 31” 7/8. Hands: 9” 1/2.

Pros: A fantastic combination of size, strength and speed, Conner is an exceptional athlete for his frame with appealing positional versatility. It was unfortunate that the standout track hurdler was not invited to the Combine. He was given the opportunity to perform at Washington’s pro day and impressed. In addition to reportedly looking fluid and explosive through positional drills, the testing numbers showcased the explosiveness clearly apparent on film. Even with pro day numbers being what they are, his numbers included 39” in the vertical, 10’7 in the broad jump and 19 bench reps. His reported times were a 4.50 in the dash and 7.15 3-cone, within a stout, physical frame.

Conner also had the chance to prove himself in a higher profile in-season matchup against BYU this past season. While the Bengals offense inevitably struggled overall against the Cougars, Conner still flashed his skillset and traits in limited opportunities. The standout playmaker took his four receptions for 81 yards at over 20 yards per catch. Another long catch-and-run was called back by an off-ball penalty. His final season included 735 yards on 42 catches (17.5 average) and 4 touchdowns.

Notable in the BYU outing and his game overall was the strong blocking throughout his film. Conner has been discussed as a potential versatile offensive weapon when projecting to the NFL level. His build and athleticism could see reps at receiver, tight end and full back in the pros. That hybrid role would add to his value to provide depth and rotational usage at multiple positions.

While the arm length is nothing special, Conner appears to play with even greater catch radius. The explosiveness to his vertical translates to his play at the catch point to high point over coverage. His strength is equally impactful in forcing his route paths. The Bengals’ receiver uses his physicality under tight coverage and is proactive with his hand use off the snap when faced with press. The powerful athlete is impressive after the catch, physical with the ball in his hands for extra yardage and breaking tackles.

Cons: Conner has areas to improve on with his execution, notably regarding his footwork. The ISU prospect could be more efficient in and out of his breaks, including on comebacks. A little wasted motion over short areas was evident on occasion that could be cleaned up. Given the rare combination of size, quickness and strength, Conner has been capable of winning, regardless of the level of precision. He won’t always be able to bully his way through as many situations as he often could at the FCS level.

Are there other “cons” worthy of listing? The typical standards could be mentioned of course. The week-to-week level of competition is lesser than he’ll obviously see in the pros. Yet, there’s little to suggest he can’t make that step-up. His purely statistical production isn’t mind-blowing. Less that 800 yards on the season doesn’t leap off the page. Yet, the relatively modest ISU passing game and the focused attention received from opposing defenses factor in as well. Perhaps there are other concerns or questions. There wasn’t much that arose from the game film, however.

Wrapping Up: Though the Shrine Bowl participant is far from a sleeper, Conner was unfortunately absent from the Combine. The tools are far too good for him not to be drafted though, surely? He had some standout reps at the Shrine event against talented DBs, owned BYU corners on several occasions during the regular season, and stole the show for many at a Washington pro day loaded with high profile prospects. Conner is a fantastic combo of size, speed, explosiveness and strength. Add in the potential versatile deployment, he has a skillset that ought to be highly desirable. Getting the ball in his hands early and let him work, target him from the slot or to the sidelines, have him open holes as a lead blocker. 

20. Cole Kelley, Quarterback, Southeastern Louisiana. Grade: 36 (7th Round)

Photo Credit: Randy Bergeron / Southeastern Louisiana University Diamonds

Height: 6’7”. Weight: 249 lbs. Arm: 33” 3/4.

Pros: While there is no Trey Lance among the small school quarterbacks this year, there are a number of interesting late round to free agent options worth a look in upcoming training camps. The personal top choice among the group, Kelley has built on two highly productive seasons with a strong process leading up to the draft. The Lions QB impressed at the NFLPA Bowl, including being named MVP of the week-closing game. Though taking it for what it is, his passing in shorts and t-shirt at the Combine did nothing to hurt his standing.

The rare physical size for the position is an unavoidable first impression. Built bigger than many tight ends, there are no issues with field vision over the O-line for Kelley. While not the quickest athlete, Kelley uses his size and strength competently to allow for regular conversion in short yardage situations. Averaging a rushing touchdown a game for Southeastern Louisiana, Kelley scored 29 touchdowns on the ground during his time as a Lion.

After some experience starting in the SEC with Arkansas, Kelley has shown significant progress in his all-round game since his time with the Razorbacks. Even taking into account the less talented defenses faced, the improvement in his process is still evident. Kelley is entrusted with more pre-snap responsibility than many college QBs, to make reads and adjustments based on the defensive alignments. A common theme in his performances and a compliment to his reads, Kelley spreads the ball to a large variety of targets, distributing the ball to whoever is open and recognizing favorable matchups.

In addition to not funnelling the ball to a favorite target, the film showcases plenty examples of quick progression work through his reads and to find his checkdowns where required. Kelley’s arm strength and velocity is sufficient, even if not as top tier in that area as might be assumed for his huge frame. He generally shows good touch on throws from a clean pocket. Kelley’s dominance saw him win the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in the FCS for the 2021 Spring season and was runner up after this fall season. His production in 2021 included 5,124 passing yards and 44 TDs. He added 491 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.

Cons: While the size lends to some effective physical runs, Kelley lacks quickness and general mobility. There will likely be issues escaping pressure in the pocket at the NFL level. His overall passing process can be relatively slower, from dropping back, setting his feet and stepping into his throws, to his throwing mechanics that can feature a slightly elongated release. While his accuracy and touch can frequently impress, when off-target, he can tend to throw behind his intended receiver too often. This has led to opportunities for DBs, including for interceptions.

Though efficient and consistent with time in the pocket, Kelley has shown some concerning loss of composure under pressure alongside ill-advised desperation throws. Though excelling for the majority of his time with Southeastern Louisiana, Kelley left an unfortunately final impression. His final appearance was a disappointing and at times ugly showing against James Madison. The SEC transfer’s decision making deteriorated in a difficult playoff outing.

Wrapping Up: The Lions quarterback had a good week at the NFLPA Bowl All-Star event, culminating in winning game MVP. Kelley also threw well at the Scouting Combine. Though a “throwing quarterback” in Indianapolis, his invite to the event is encouraging for pro interest. Kelley certainly has his flaws and limitations, however, with more time spent watching how Kelley executes, the more positives emerge in his process, control of the offense and mental game. He won’t fit all offensive schemes but could be a late-round target with long-term backup potential.

PAGE 1: 1-10

PAGE 3: 21-30

PAGE 4: Top 75 Full Big Board

Feature Image Credit: Missouri State University Athletics

Rebecca Rennie

rebecca rennie


Rebecca is an NFL Draft analyst focusing primarily on the FCS and Group of Five conferences, and a fan of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanford Cardinal. You can find her other articles here and follow on Twitter @bex_r86.